Here's everything a parent needs to know about teenage pregnancy.
"Mom…dad… I’m pregnant."
Suddenly, the room goes gravely quiet, and a wave of emotions come crashing in. Of course, no parent is ready to hear these words from their teenage daughter.
You might have heard about this happening 'to other people' but never in your wildest dreams thought an unplanned pregnancy would derail your hopes and dreams for your child and her future. But hold on a minute… it’s not entirely about you right now!
The situation can be overwhelming, and you might be left speechless, but now is probably not the best time to let your emotions get the best of you or to be at a loss for words. Whatever happens next will impact the rest of your child’s life. She needs you to put her wellbeing first.
It’s ok! You might not have all the answers or know what the options are but the fact that you’re reading this is a step towards empowering your teen to navigate unplanned motherhood. Reassuring her that she is loved and supported is part of the empowerment.
- Sex education: Why are our teen girls still being shamed?
- A teen mother’s advice...
- Getting Ready for Baby
Did I do something wrong? Teenage pregnancy in Mzansi
It’s a natural reaction to question your parenting, but don’t fall in the trap of taking on guilt around what went 'wrong'. The reality is many teenagers have sex, and there are several reasons for teenage pregnancy.The topic of sex is still off-limits in many households and schools around South Africa but open communication about sex and reproductive health education is vital for teens to learn about safer safe and using contraceptives, what consent means, and how to report sexual assault.
There are many misconceptions around teenage pregnancy, for example, many South Africans think that teen pregnancy is more prevalent amongst girls in rural areas because they want to receive child care grants from Government. However, statistics prove that this is not the case.
How often do girls fall pregnant?
Teen pregnancy is not as uncommon as you might think. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) points out, girls between the ages of 15 and 19 account for 11% of births around the world. Moreover, 95% of those teenagers who have given birth are from developing countries, like South Africa.
A 2018 report by Stats SA revealed more than 97 000 girls gave birth during the previous year.
"I'm an emotional wreck!": Advice on dealing with the initial shock
Understandably, emotions are probably at an all-time high, yes, there are some problematic discussions to have and tough decisions to make, but you will have to manage your anger or disappointment. It’s vital to remember that this isn’t the end of the world and that your daughter’s life isn’t over. She can still reach her full potential.
According to the Parent Centre, it’s best to process emotions with your significant other, friends or a therapist. Put your child first because the effects of teenage pregnancy on the mother can be a lot to deal with. Hear her out, don’t judge her, be a shoulder to cry on and give guidance, and make sure she sees a medical professional asap to get the right medical care.
How did I miss this? What are the early signs?
If you’ve noticed your teenager acting differently, and you suspect she might be pregnant, there are some early signs of pregnancy you can look out for. According to popular health advice website WebMD, some of the classic symptoms of pregnancy include:
- Missing a menstrual period
- Nausea or vomiting (a.k.a. morning sickness which actually can happen any time of day)
- Avoiding fatty or fried foods and meat
- Urinating frequently
- Sensitive or painful nipples or breasts
- Mood swings
Keep in mind that, while missing a menstrual period is certainly a classic sign of pregnancy for adults, it’s not as clear-cut for teens. Girls are still developing physically, so their periods might not be regular just yet. What’s more, intense dieting, exercise and anorexia can also disrupt girls’ menstrual cycles.
What are the legal options when it comes to teenage pregnancy in South Africa?
After learning that your daughter is pregnant and dealing with the emotional aftermath, you and your child might be having 'what now?' moments and thinking about the future. But to curb the confusion, helplessness and to ensure she doesn’t make any big decisions lightly "it’s essential to learn about her legal rights and keep in mind that she does have options," says Advocate Jackie Nagtegaal, Managing Director at Law for All.
1. Keeping the baby
If your daughter decides she wants to be a mother, you will have to put your personal beliefs aside and continue protecting your daughter’s Constitutional rights, which include the rights to health care and basic education. According to Adv Nagtegaal, a child having a child does not make her an adult, and you are still their legal guardians, which means you are still responsible for upholding their legal rights. Also, get ready to be doting grandparents!
Encourage your daughter to see a therapist who can help her navigate the emotional and physical challenges of carrying out a pregnancy.
Adv Nagtegaal also strongly advises getting in touch with the father and his family.
"It’s best to contact him and his family to discuss a way forward. That way, the financial burden of raising a child doesn’t fall on your family alone. Both parents must pay maintenance, and if they can’t, the grandparents will have to chip in," she says.
Naturally, there will be some added financial strain with regular medical check-ups, the actual delivery and buying all the necessary items for the baby after birth.
Having the father involved in his baby’s life from the get-go is usually in a child’s best interest. Unfortunately, widespread ideas of 'dead beat dads' often mean teen fathers are not told about their children. But research by academic scholars Sphiwe Madiba and Carol Nsiki showed that "most teen fathers desired to be good fathers and tried to fulfil their perceived fatherhood roles." And should a teen dad decide to take responsibility, contribute to the baby’s upbringing and embrace fatherhood, he will then have full parental rights as well, unless a court says otherwise.
2. Putting the baby up for adoption
In recent years, there has been a sharp decline in adoptions in South Africa, but giving up the baby for adoption is still a viable option. If your daughter decides to go this route, it’s a good idea to consult a therapist or an accredited social worker to guide your family through the process.It might feel like the right decision, but it’s still a big one.
"Your teen will have to give written permission to put the baby up for adoption, and you will also have to sign-off on her decision. Of course, she can change her mind and withdraw consent within 60 days of signing the paperwork. Remember, if you know who the dad is and you know how to get in touch with him, you will have to tell him about the potential adoption. The law gives the father the option to challenge the process or adopt the baby himself," advises Nagtegaal.
3. Having an abortion in South Africa
'Abortion' is a scary word that carries a lot of stigma and invokes various emotional viewpoints. In South Africa, it is indeed legal for a teen mother to get an abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. Getting an abortion at a later stage in the pregnancy is also possible, but only if the mother or baby’s health is in danger.
Choosing to terminate a pregnancy requires a lot of thought and sensitivity. Of course, it’s an invasive and potentially traumatic experience for anyone, so hesitation is entirely understandable. Once again, extensive counselling is recommended.
Keep in mind that pregnant teenagers do not need their parents’ consent to get an abortion. All the more reason for you to be open and compassionate from the get-go since it’s best for your child to feel loved and supported, should she decide that this is best for her.
Your daughter has the right to a safe abortion carried out by a qualified medical practitioner. This can be done medically (with an abortion pill) or surgically. The physical recovery period is within a couple of weeks, but the emotional healing could take much longer.
Teen moms and attending school in South Africa
Your daughter might be embarrassed about falling pregnant and scared of being mocked by her peers. But a good education is essential for her and her baby’s financial future. Legally speaking, pregnancy does not mean a child’s basic right to education disappears, and they cannot be denied access to schooling.
Schools are not allowed to discriminate against pregnant pupils by suspending or expelling them or even by denying them to write exams. What's more, prohibiting a teen from returning to school after giving birth is unlawful.
The best way to deal with your pregnant teen returning to school is to set up a meeting with the principal to discuss the way forward and get clarity on:
- How long your daughter can remain in school before needing to take time off to deliver the baby
- When, realistically, your child will be allowed to return to school after giving birth
- Whether the teachers can formulate a catch-up plan for the work she misses
- The possibility of sending homework while your child is at home. It’s important to get this meeting recorded and the agreement signed by everyone involved.
Protect your child’s future
Dealing with teenage pregnancy is both complicated and emotionally taxing, without a doubt. But being a parent means doing what you can to protect and empower your child, and part of that is knowing the law is on your side. If parents don’t feel powerless, it will give children hope and motivation to carry on and reach their potential.
Have you recently learned that your teen is expecting? Share your story with us, and we could publish it. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
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